So, one day we put on a play

The basketball hit the fluourescent light bulb the very moment I stepped through the classroom door, as the new drama teacher. Glass confetti tinkling to my feet. Slightly alarmed I stood my ground as two tall teenage rugby players rushed me, dodging at the very last minute to either side  and blew straight past. They ran high, arms high, heads high,  steps exaggeratedly huge, past and gone, out the door. I turned and watched them disappear  then shut the door and turned back to the rest of the class.

I was a director in a little theatre, writing scripts in my spare time and running my own  drama classes in an abandoned warehouse, when I was not working in the old folks home down the road.   I had been asked to teach a few classes of drama at a local high school. The hours matched the hours my own children went to school  so it was a good offer. I was a young thin tired solo mum.  I had my head held just above the cold waters. I always wore black because it was easy to match when you got dressed  in the dark and the thrift shops have lots of black.

This school would be known nowadays as a troubled school. These students were a trifle undisciplined. Well more than a trifle. Some kids slept in garages and cars or sold drugs for their Dads on the way to school because their Dads were in jail.  They got drunk or watched dubious videos and TV or partied and  roamed half the night, catching up on their sleep in class.  Some kids had kind, desperately poor Mums. Or Dads without jobs who met them at the gate every day and walked them home in the rain. Some kids had no parent evident at all, sometimes they had aunts or grannies struggling to keep up.  Sleeping here and sleeping there, mainly on couches or mattresses on the floor. Some seldom ate a cooked dinner. Some always did. Some bought lunch to school but ate it fast and privately before someone stole it off them. Some kids got beaten by their parents and some beat them straight back.  I often had girls bring their babies to class, or leave entirely, unable to come to school because of the bruises they could never speak of. Some of the stories from this school would break your heart. But I shall not tell those stories. Walking into that room was like crossing a divide into another world.

From behind me I heard a scuffle and then both of the boys erupted back around a corner. I reopened the door and they hurled themselves back into the classroom. One dragging a vacuum cleaner with its wagging tail bouncing up the steps behind him. The other boy had a stolen fluorescent light bulb from an empty classroom. He was brandishing it above his head like an olympic flame, ducking to get through the door.  And so we began.  This particular class was a senior class so these boys and girls were between 17 and 19 years old. They were all sizes but all taller than I was. And very tough.  Most of the boys were in the First 15 (rugby) that year. The girls were not to be trifled with. Altogether, there were about 30 of them. And this was just one class.

The other teachers took bets on how long I would last. This was told to me years later when I became a Dean.  When I was offered the position of  Head of the Faculty of the Arts a few years after that,  they told me no-one bet on me lasting past 14 days. They were convinced that the kids would slay me. But I put on my highest heels every morning so I could look these kids and the teachers straight in the eye, and we worked hard. I threw out all the desks and  lined the room with couches and comfy old chairs. And photographs of what they were doing. And bribed them with food.  We did not sit down for long in drama. We needed space.

I got a reputation for being fearless, strict but fair,  but that first year I was making it up as I went along. My classes were loud and organised.  If you were late to class you had to sing a nursery rhyme.  No-one got to fight when I was on duty during lunchtimes.   I would march straight up to the boys or girls and scream as loudly as I could- NOT NOW. It was all about timing.  I remember once walking straight into a fight that hadn’t really got underway, they were at the stage of feathering up and rising on their toes, eyeballing each other, chins pointing up, still fooling around.  One of the boys stepped back and his elbow hit me in the face right below the eye.  Now remember every fight has a ring of kids around it, and here I am in the middle of a circle of heaving, expectant students, in my heels, dressed in black, with wild hair, and this kid wacks me in the eye.  I stumble and he turns ready to smack me again. Saw that it was me and was appalled. The look on his face. I will never forget it. He almost cried. The whole scene froze, both boys put their fists down and rushed to me. The fight instantly forgotton. One boy caught me as I reeled and everyone was like Oh Miss, oh Miss, we are sorry Miss , come here Miss, sit down.  The girls taking over. Are you alright?  Don’t tell, will you miss?! Don’t tell, he didn’t mean it!

Who was I going to tell? Myself? See they weren’t so bad.

The first year I decided to stage Antigone with the Seniors. It is a Greek Tragedy. I was never one for Greek Tragedies really, too many words, so I cut half the words out, (Sophocles would have understood) and wrote concise poetic bridging sections.  The costuming would be cheap.  Greeks just wore sheets didn’t they (did I mention that I had no budget during those first years) and I  love the swirl of cloaks  under lights on a stage. The rap that the kids listened to all day lent itself to the Ancient Rhythms and my students empathised with the glorious Greek madness. They completely understood people tipping off the edge, the swirl of fear and blood.   Family, suicide, death, bodies and burials. Lost Mothers and murdered sisters.  Everyone wanted a part. I loved that. I think everyone should take at least one turn across the stage. Applause is good for the soul. And applause was mandatory in my class. I would clap loudly -Woo hoo. Great fall. Clap, clap, clap!  Are you alright?

I wrote a ton of extra parts, gave the speaking parts to the kids who would read, made the thugs spear carriers, some were very good spear carriers. Frightening actually. I roped in some younger students for some of the more physical parts, we erected two massive scaffolds on either side of the hall to delineate a stage space. And these kids were honestly magnificent.  They poured through the doors. A rabble. A delicious hungry rabble.

There were rules. You cannot miss a rehearsal unless you are DEAD. If you have to babysit your sisters or brothers bring them AND their homework. If you are sick bring your blanket and tissues and STOP your moaning. If you are in hospital we will come and rehearse up there (and we did). If  you have a problem with someone in this room you leave it outside the door. In fact any agro and the kid was instructed to pick the aggression up off the floor, lug it to the door and throw it out. All bad feeling – straight out the door and SLAM.   If you miss rehearsals with no reason  and no notice you lose your part.  And anyway you can only miss a rehearsal if you are DEAD.  Period.

Some of my old students will be reading this and having a chuckle about that!  Here is my number call me, I said,  if you do not have a ride I will pick you up. My own children had to come to the rehearsals as well, with their homework and sleeping bags, so I also bought the food. Food was very important.  We were always hungry. And they worked. They worked very hard.

There were two boys who just could not get into the rhythm, they became a problem. They incited trouble and things went missing.  One was quite a Big Boy, muscly, tall, he had a real presence and not in a good way. He was  afraid, afraid to stand up, his fear made him dangerous.  I went through each stage with them, trying to motivate them. But they lost interest and did not come back. Occasionally on the weekend they would sneak into the back of the hall if I forgot to lock the door, reeking of dope and beer, and watch.  I let them sit.  This was my mistake. I got so busy and being new to teaching I made an error and took my hand off them. My metaphorical hand. I should have kept them close and busy.  But I had a huge cast who were working so hard and my own kids with their little white faces in that dark brown crowd. And I just took my hand off these two big boys. They stopped coming to class, then dropped out of school. They became night rumours.

Opening night came. I cannot tell you the energy in that room. We were all in the classroom getting ready. The noise was at fever pitch.  I tatooed the spear carriers arms with a black vivid creating great swirling celtic sweeps.  They had made their own spears in woodwork, some were beautifully carved.  They wrapped themselves in the Pacific version of a toga that I had designed and painted. The cloaks, the sewing class had made, were twirled in the air.  I had found a job-lot of black cotton and used it for most everything, we had painted the designs on the hems  in gold and silver. Their waists were wrapped with borrowed golden ropes from the staff room curtains. Antigone and her sister in their white were startling. Antigones chains of familial  loyalty on her wrists. Everyone had  been draped with shiny new dog chain as bulky solid necklaces.   The masks for the chorus ,the art students had made, were a triumph.  I dumped out my make up bag and the girls drew big Cleopatra eyes. They were gorgeous.

New Zealand schools have classrooms dotted around gardens connected with outside corridors and verandahs. Even this poor school.  So when we were ready and we had breathed and centred and hummed, and the word came that our audience was seated and overflowing, we silently streamed, giddy with excitement, down the darkened paths and dim outside corridors of the nighttime schoolgrounds. Without being seen our silent  silhouettes paraded to the back of the hall, and funneled into a backstage created using black cotton curtains that  lined the scaffold. I had taught them a kind of backstage sign language because we had no green room. They were completely silent. Everyone was within feet of the stage the whole performance. No room to move and no-one wanted to.  Their eyes had the white of terrified horses, their faces glowing in the dark. Their teeth grinning. Remember, I had said:  Have Fun. If you love what you do your audience will love you too.  Be the best that you can be. Opening positions please, I signed. Counting them in with my fingers raised.

And as the music teacher began to draw song up from her students, quietening the audience. The lights came up,  turning our little hall into a golden palace, lighting our opening players frozen in place, their costumes no longer black cotton but gleaming cloaks of quality.  A sound behind me where there should have been no sound. The  back stage door opened and two large dark shapes shoved in. They pushed straight through to the stage entrance and sat down on two of the back stage chairs. It was pitch black but I knew who they were and I felt the shuffle and fear of my other students as the Big Boy and his cohort sprawled out into the carefully choreographed darkness.

I waved my next players to me and we breathed together, focus I signed  and with a touch – onto the stage they went. I had to put my face really close to the ears of the Big Boy. You cannot sit here, you are blocking my exits and entrances. They glared at me. Another student came up and whispered that they had all  been ejected from the audience by another teacher. All?  Where are the others. I whispered- His boys. I had heard about them.  I swallowed. He motioned with his head, deadpan,  lightening flashed on the stage.  Low drums began. The rest of them were outside the door.

I stood back up, watching him and he sat and watched me back. Menace rolled off him.  He tipped his head at his mate and the boy got up, pushing through the kids, leaving the back door to slam into the performance. I watched the Big Boy.   I want to stay Miss, he said.  He opened his hands on his knees. His eyes never left mine. He was out on a limb. He was vulnerable.  We paused just the two of us. As I moved players onto and off the stage, adjusting costumes and retying hair, I tried to untangle the knot of this Big Boy.   He waited. I nodded and bent close again. I want you to keep them out of here.  I said.  Can you do that?  Will you do that for me?   I pointed to the door, not a sound I signed. We watched each other a moment longer. He stood and went to the door. I raised my eyes at the light he was carelessly letting in.  The door shut.  Softly.  Back he came. Sit there. I said to him.  We have made a hole in the curtain.  You can watch. I offered my hand, waiting. He took it, my small white hand, broken marriage rings flashing, enfolded completely into the shadow of his palm. Hot. He nodded.  He sat at his peephole, quite still and watched the entire show, with my daughter laid under the scaffold beside him watching from her own peephole. He only watched one night then we did not see him again.

The play was a triumph.  We played four nights. They bought the house down. The audience  loved it.  The heads of my students rose up to  magnificent healing applause. My kids  laughed and gave me flowers out on the stage on the last night. They  threw a cloak over my black second hand wool dress  and a special necklace of dog chains around my neck. Now we all matched. They were gleeful.

As we were walking back to the music room to change back into ordinary people, they were flying about in their cloaks, birds, sucking in the night and success . I  heard a scuffle in the car park.  Shouts and bangs, glass smashing. Grunts. Through the trees I saw the police were restraining a boy.  They were being rough with him. He was trying to smash another car window as he screamed at them. They would hurt him.  I  called out.  Hey, he is one of mine! What are you doing?  Storming out of the dark I went running straight at the cops into the fight.  I knew I could stop the kid my way. The cops were turning  fast to meet me. Crouched. Not sure where I was.

My Big Boy came out of nowhere, reached out and  caught me,  his long arm around my waist, lifting my feet off the ground and pulling me back to the group. I was angry. He would not release me. They had all surrounded me.   Don’t mess with the police Miss, he said. Face close. Sober. Watching me, his fury becoming worry.  Waiting until I was still.   They will hurt you too, Miss.  Always run away when you see the police, Miss C. He said. I glared at him. We all stood. In tableaux.  Waiting. We heard  the doors slam on the police car and they pulled through  the school parking lot.   I turned to the Big Boy. Was that the one who came in with you the other night?  He took a step back. Head down.  Ae Miss.  He stood in the dark, slightly apart from the others now, watching the police hit the tarmac and race off.

I want to see you at 8 in my classroom, Monday morning. In uniform. He turned back. Thought about it. Ae Miss. A small smile.

Now everyone there is cake in the drama room. Come. Change, and tidy everything away. I want 26 dog chain necklaces in my hands before we eat!

I will collect them for you? The Big Boy said. I tipped my head then nodded.  Oh wait I called.  They all froze, and turned, a giggle.

You, I said. Pointing my pen at him. The Big Boy, drew in his breath. No more picking up the teacher and carrying her around! They all shrieked. They became ravens  and raced together through the darkness towards the pools of light at the door of the classroom.

I was engaged to work for three weeks and ended up staying 11 years. I  founded and ran a hugely successful  drama unit in that school.  We continued to butcher and rewrite the Great Works then wrote, butchered and rewrote our own. We toured, won awards, became nationally recognised.  My students were so good and so naughty.  All grown now. In London, Sydney, Perth, Germany. All over. Some are reading bedtime Shakespeare to their babies and some working two jobs to make ends meet. Some are still living there in that dangerous suburb and studying when they can. Some are beauticians, some are designers, some write and  some are in jail.  You may have even seen a few of them in the movies and TV. I am very very proud of them.


96 Comments on “So, one day we put on a play

  1. Hi Cecilia. An incredibly moving story. Wow! When ever I read your stories “old soul” comes to mind. Thank goodness those kids had you to watch over them.
    Regards Florence.

    • Yes, this is one that will be written, after the work I am writing now. they are pretty cool these kids, grown-ups now of course!.. c

  2. You are an amazing woman – I expect all those young people whose lives you touched will always remember what you did for them. Thank god for people like you.

    • They did a lot for me too, but we had a lot of fun! It was a tough incredibly rewarding period in my life! c

    • That was the thing i did not even realise at the time Katherine, and the thing that made me shake afterwards. I was dressed the same as they were and I was little, the police would have made all the wrong assumptions. c

  3. Wisdom and fun are the two over-riding elements of this post: Cecilia, I take my hat off to you.

    I too became a teacher by accident: having left school at 16, I had no qualification but a successful career in public relations and marketing. Arriving for two years in Seychelles, my husband working as a dentist for the Govt Health service, I needed occupation, and volunteered to give the odd lecture in the Polytyechnic School of Business Studies. Before you could say silly old bat, I was in front of a class of 18-20 year olds, teaching commerce for a Cambridge diploma. They were very happy times – unlike your students, mine were highly motivated, polite and hard working.

    • how cool ViV, You must have loved it with your history, being able to really teach with knowledge of the actual job, sadly I cannot teach in the states though at any level, because I do not have the qualifications for here..

      • What do they know? From the sound of things you are a heck of a good teacher.

        I was lucky – the beaurocrats demanded some kind of certificate and by chance, my French diploma arrived our first week. I had been studying French at evening classes, prior to moving full time to France after our stay in Seychelles, and they thought that was good enough – there was an “advanced” in the title! The only help the French was to me was that I could understand most of what they were saying when they rabbited in Creole, thinking I wouldn’t have a clue!

  4. What a great story, thank you for sharing. I am constantly amazed at the power of theatre to change lives. Can’t wait until the day when I do it again. -kate

  5. Jen worked with kids like that in a detention facility. She wasn’t expected to last either. She learned alot from those kids- far more than she taught them.

    • tell Jen that is great, I almost got a job taking drama classes in a jail but on the day I showed up for work they had gone into lock down because of a riot that lasted way too long..and i found other work.. it is so true about the kids teaching us.. very true.. c

  6. This is an awesome and telling story Cecilia. Apparently, being a teacher is terrifying and inspiring work no matter where you live. Glad I worked with the little ones. Thank you for sharing this poignant event with us. ~ Lynda

  7. Wonder Woman! You never cease to amaze me. Many of my family members are teachers and they are going to love this story. Thank you so much, Celi, for sharing this with us.

  8. You are welcome John. And thank you for sharing it with your family too. I love that Zia will read it. c

  9. Powerful stuff, love, laughter and discipline. And food! Your students were very lucky humans. So are we that get to learn from your story as you revisit it in our presence! Marvelous, Celi!

    • It is like that too kathryn .. i get to be with them for a while, i do miss them so, and writing about them is as close as i get nowadays.. c

    • Sometimes i will be telling John a story then i will stop and say, it sounds like i have had nine lives just like a cat! He has known me since i was 16 (only married for four tho)so he does not even raise a shaggy eyebrow! c

  10. Dear Cecilia! What a beautiful story. I opened your post this morning and been reading it the whole day when I had a chance. Now it is 0:26, (Sunday) and I’m so happy I finally got the opportunity to finish. Is so moving and special… Thanks for sharing, really. Have a nice Sunday.

    • I am thrilled that you got to read it, I was worried that it was too long but the students were worthy of a decent number of words I thought.. Thank you Giovanna c

  11. How I wish I had had a teacher like you C! I was never a student. I liked some classes and some teachers but I wasn’t a student and none ever lifted me to a higher level. I got out of high school on a 2 – 1 vote of my English teachers. I was that close to not passing my 2nd semester of senior English class. I was never bad, just wasn’t a student.
    Another great read!

    • You can read and write perfectly well, plus all the work you do – Harold so you can’t have been too bad! c

  12. Thank God for big boys with long arms…and Cakes .. in the music room…but, not the Band cake… I can’t digest satanic lyrics that well.. Beautifully written, and I think we may have gone to different schools together.. so happy you survived it all to write about it.. Bless you…Oh, and speaking of Shakespeare, I may have mentioned already.. ( so many comment threads so little time) hopefully not in your comments, but I saw a new movie coming out that looked interesting, strange as it may sound, about Shakespeare being only a selected front man for the real master of ceremonies, behind yon curtain.,. so to speak…yeah right, I sort of doubt the Wizard would have chosen a balding guy…lol, just kidding.. But, the trailer, or, what little I saw of the movie preview was intriguing …Bless You
    oh, and no… I didn’t catch the name of the flick…so I’ll be looking out for it again…

  13. I can definitely see how you were thought of a fearless.. that’s because you totally are. You kinda kick ass C :). Beautiful story.. just beautiful

  14. I loved reading this! Thank you so much!

    I could just see it as a movie one day! Very inspiring.

  15. C 🙂
    I know I say this every time but you are truly talented

    hats off to you for being a wonderful teacher who touched souls and changed lives

    • The kids were what made it really. They responded in a way that was joyous. I loved going to work there! c

    • Yep! See my reply to your questions on my “light on concrete” post.
      But today I’d been out to take pictures of a bridge with the name “Slinky Springs To Fame”.

  16. what an inspiring story Celi! My Gran put on plays during the school holidays at a community centre when we were children 🙂

  17. What a beautiful teacher… Your kids were so lucky dear Cecilia. How nice to know that there are still beautiful people in this crazy world. As always your writing sytle is amazing, as if I can hear you, I can see you while I am reading your words… Never stop. Thank you, Have a nice day, with my love, nia

    • Thank you Kristy. I love the stories too. I will try and do one each week, Maybe we will call it weekend reading.. c

  18. If you are going to be a teacher desi, i am convinced that you will be just great. i also used to teach teachers how to teach drama and still have all my units so if you do get into a classroom. (from ages 4 – 18). let me know and I will write some just for you.. drama and kids and a classroom are simply a joyful mix. i miss teaching more than i can say!

    • That sounds wonderful! I’m honoured that you would even consider putting something together just for my classroom. I’ll get there, C! First grad school, and then the world! 😀

      • You will do it honey.. all it takes is tenacity, some brights and time management.. you have that in spades! c

  19. Lovely story Celia and so rewarding to see students achieve through your hard work and investment into them.

  20. You amaze me. The world needs more teachers like you who are willing to love and work with the kids who need it most. How proud you must be to see your old students who have made something happy of their lives – something which, possibly, would not have been made without you. Fan-stinkin-tastic!!!

  21. yes gretchen.. they are the stars really. it was hard for them to do something so radically different from the norm..and there are many teachers out there who way pst the extra mile. very good people c

  22. What a fantastic post! I think it’s wonderful what you did for that drama group. Plus, I like your description of the schools being connected with outdoor walkways, verandas and gardens.

    • this is how is in NZ, i look at the schools out here in the Midwest – because of the heat and the cold they look like power plants.. in NZ everything connects with the outside.. very pacific.. c

  23. It must be deeply satisfying to know that you gave these people something of themselves they may not oherwise have had. This is an inspiring story, Cecilia.

    • It was a wild ride and getting them to that wall of applause, and seeing them heave their heads up and laugh out-loud in delight is an amazing thing.. you will understand this too i think.. c

    • yes, that is right.saffron, . that is so right! it is never one side teaching another.. it is an open flowing channel of surprise! c

  24. That is a very moving story, Cecilia. I didn’t want to stop reading! 🙂 You obviously impacted those school kids greatly, and gave their lives direction. Some times all it takes to save a life is some understanding, and you understood their situation in a way that obviously lots of other people didn’t. Maybe because you identified with them too, on a certain level. I liked that you insisted every one come to school, NO MATTER WHAT! You gave them reason to aspire. I was truly moved. I want to read more, I’ve subscribed! 🙂

    • That is great Katerina and you were so completely right when you say i identified with them. I did. i was not sure whether i got that across. But we were all in the same boat really. Struggling along. c

    • He hung around for quite a while, but eventually went his own way.. mm.. he wanted to get it right.. but it was a hard place.. c

  25. Spectacular, engaging, couldn’t-stop-reading story. You pulled me in with every nuance. I felt like I was there, with you and your drama students. Every school should be so blessed to have a teacher like you who cares with such depth. Thank you for sharing every detail of this beautiful, moving drama.

  26. You are quite the amazing woman! Thanks for sharing this, it was touching and truly allowed us to see a part of your past and who you are. We are not only women cooking dinner and blogging!

    • No, we most certainly are not only women who cook dinner and blog, we are women WRITERS with PASTS who cook dinner and blog! c

  27. Pingback: Interview with Cecilia from The Kitchen’s Garden « Creativity's Workshop

  28. That line where they tell you ‘not to tell’, so telling! You are one of them, what a privilege. And maybe what a challenge! So inspiring. 🙂

  29. What a great story!! It is really uplifting to know that there are teachers out there who are willing to go the extra distance and redirect a student’s energy into something more positive and fruitful. I love the rules you set out for them. It must have been so rewarding to see these students give it their all…

    I’m sure your own children have also learned so many great things just by having you at the helm!

  30. hello lovely C. thanks for talking “politics” – of all things for a smart girl – to even raise! 🙂
    i think politics in the US (or anywhere) is like a play.
    Will Shakespeare said it once: “All the world is a stage.”
    I responded to your reference to “motives” of some over majorities. It can be read here:
    – – –
    On a more practical note, it’s interesting how you make your own home brew. (vino).
    In the South of Oamaru – they are really good at making whisky. it’s even being sold back to Scotland now. Go figure!

    Have you thought of trying to brew a good whisky on the farm. You’d be a huge hit, marketing it.

    Much love special Kiwi in the Midwest – USA. America is all the richer and so lucky to have you in it. 🙂
    Here’s the whisky Oamaru link too:

    Mauri ora. Sam.

    • in america they are not allowed to own a still! can you imagine, so if we did make whiskey it would be illegal,., a hang over from prohibition days.. crazy aye!! I will have tio go through oamaru on my travels in december and check this out.. thank you kare.. c

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